Jan Robert Leegte
"I don’t treat the computer as a tool but as a subject."
In 1997, our first personal computer found its place on the family desk, the one with the sliding keyboard drawer bought for the occasion by my parents. The Internet in its home version had been around for less than 10 years, but already this interface with its pages, windows, language for coding and bars for scrolling had become the material of a handful of artists such as Alexei Shulgin, JODI, Olia Lialina, Mouchette and that year, 24-year-old Jan Robert Leegte.
One can experience Leegte's work from his personal computer, behind his desk, but also on his smartphone or in physical spaces in which artifacts from the internet take on a different meaning. Indeed, as they evolve as structural elements of the gallery space, they bear witness to the way in which they structure our connected lives. This is precisely where Jan Robert Leegte's work comes into its own. By echoing our behaviors, but also by listening to what systems such as NFT publishing, HTML language or GPT-3 code generation offer to make each experience unique.
Here, work is transposed. Its primary capacity is to respond to the different realities in which it evolves. In this respect, since Jan Robert Leegte began working with the NFT format (less than 3 years ago), his practice has expanded as he has adapted to this new paradigm. Now more experimental, freer and independent, the artist finds himself linked to a community of collectors who like to be in direct contact with the source. This is yet another way for him to include users in the generative process of his works. We may see this as a response to a pedagogical concern, but the artist's main aim is to remind us of the importance of taming and creating meaning with these new tools, whose experience we renew every day. By forcing us to experience an abstract Internet made up of pixels, colors, lines and pages, he encourages us to see a screen as a digital painting of bizarre purity.
What was your first encounter with art and how did it develop?
Jan Robert Leegte : I grew up exposed to art and culture, visiting museums, concerts, etc. My sister who is eight years older became an artist and introduced me to contemporary art. Personally I was not interested in becoming an artist until my 21st year of age. I studied architecture first, but always was more interested in experimentation in life, philosophy and a natural phenomenological sense of the world. Turned off by the applied aspect of architecture and the complexity of it, I switched to art school. But the interest in body / space phenomenology explored within architecture stayed. This led me to the sculpture department making large installations in which I would perform.
Now, could you tell us about your first encounter with a computer and with the Internet?
The spatial work was fantastic, but I felt this was repeating history a bit, as I looked heavily at the 60s and 70s as inspiration. I had always been into computers, and started to experiment with HTML / Flash, etc in 96. Then in 1997, like a watershed moment, I uploaded my first code to a webserver and it just hit me. This was this public space, interactive, architectural, performative, everything I was fascinated by, but then brand new, weird, materially unknown, a new frontier of art. Once I engaged with it, I quickly came in touch with the early pioneers: JODI, Alexei Shulgin, Mouchette, etc.
Jan Robert Leegte, JPEG, 2023. Courtesy of the artist and Upstream Gallery.
What questions are the most important when you think about the materialization of certain of your works like Scrollbars, 2004 for example or screen based works such as JPEG, 2023?
My work moves in and out of the screen quite fluidly because I'm a trained sculptor and think in terms of body and space. Also my work has a highly conceptual and narrative side, as I try to explain to myself what is happening all the time in observations and translate that back into the work. I don’t treat the computer as a tool, like most digital artists, but as a subject. I often say that I don’t use software to make art, I make art about software. This point of view makes me free to use any medium I feel necessary. So I made drawings, sculptures, video installations, prints, wall paintings, apps, software, websites, NFTs, and audio work. Anything I need to express a certain aspect of the networked computer I find fascinating. But each medium has its own reality and needs to be treated that way. There are no easy translations. When I make a physical iteration of the NFT JPEG, it takes months of searching, experimenting to find a way which is autonomous in its own way, a new work.
The fact that your work is responsive online (thanks to SVG format) and adapts to any size, makes a huge difference. Is it something you have experimented with in physical spaces too?
I mainly use HTML as a responsive medium, and responsiveness is a big part of my work. Having worked with the web so long, I can testify it infects your thinking, just like procedural work. Much of my installations are often site specific, and can adapt to new contexts. Also, my wall paintings are context specific but also the simple choice of print size or aspect ratio. I can use randomisation for that, or just be very agnostic. It doesn’t feel very important to choose anything, as you know another variation is fine too. There is a great freedom to this as an artist.
Jan Robert Leegte, Web, 2023. Courtesy of the artist and Upstream Gallery.
"I’m not interested in making art with software."
Some of your work focuses on the different artifacts of the Internet as we know it (Buttons, Scrollbars,…) and its architecture (Windows, etched frames for example). It reminds us of Alexei Shulgin whose work Form Art, 1996 already in the 90s, played with the functional aspects of the Web page. Is it necessary for a digital work to address its own infrastructure of apparition and dissemination and encapsulate some of these aspects?
It seems essential. I adhere to Marshall McLuhan’s famous “The Medium is the Message'', as the medium itself is the guiding force. It is why I’m not interested in making art with software. The socials stream endless content all day. I want to look at the material of the medium itself, and hear what it speaks. My latest solo was titled “No Content. Contemplations on Software.” which could be read as a protest but mostly a call to observe as an antidote.
Jan Robert Leegte, Buttons, 2022. Courtesy of the artist and Upstream Gallery.
I called my recent NFT project Web,2023 : “a computer's dérive within itself”. It being a 1000 web pages created and linked together algorithmically, the aimless wandering becomes inherent to the experience of the work. I think there is a relation in how the situationists wanted to use art as a tool to break the kapitalist interpretation of phenomena. If anything, I also want to break with the dominant functional way of interpreting the interface and the internet, and just experience it as it is. Nothing more, Nothing less.
Is it important for your piece to look visually simple so the complexity of the code does not overshadow the beauty of the work? How do you balance such aspects?
My code usually is also quite simple. As my work really wants to address subtleties in our everyday interactions with software, I aim to keep it simple but I also pay great attention to the aesthetics. The work must be seductive, to entrance you into this state of observation. You can read my works as meditations on software. That takes a certain state of mind, which I try to create.
When you provide an on-chain version of your work, is the NFT minting process part of the work or only a way to distribute it?
As with all new media, it takes time to learn what it is. NFTs were brand new to me 2 years ago. I am slowly understanding how they work. For some artworks the minting process is secondary, but I am embracing this more and more as a focal point. With Web, 2023, the auction and process prior to that was very much thought out and part of the work.
Jan Robert Leegte, Broken Images, 2023. Courtesy of the artist and Upstream Gallery.
In your recent work Broken Images, 2023, the image placeholder of a broken link is interpreted by the browser itself. How do you play with standard web protocol?
It is one of the elements of the nature of networked software I point at and use in my work. It was the work Scrollbar Composition (.com), 2000 that taught me a lot. This work has been shape shifting over more than 20 years, and showed me this elemental nature of working with software. It is contextual and changing over time. The work has been a mirror of the underlying software for more than two decades. Among other themes, Broken Images, 2023 aims to do the same.
**The art space is a technology as much as the Internet is a technology but when you have a show in a physical gallery, do you think about the architecture of the gallery as much as you think about the architecture of the web when you produce a new series of NFT for instance? **
Far less. The networked computer is my subject, and the more I work with it, I see it as a subject that touches all of life.
JPEG, 2023. Installation view"NO CONTENT: CONTEMPLATIONS ON SOFTWARE", Upstream Gallery, 2023.
It seems that an NFT simply presented on a screen is not a deliberately relevant choice (except in terms of documentation). What connections do you make between the gallery space and the networked computer?
Translating NFTs to a physical space takes a lot of effort to get it right. You need to look at every single work and recontextualise it within this new site specific context. Some work on a screen, but some need to be printed, projected, made into a sculpture, or explained in words or text. They are two different realms and should be treated as such.
Is saving a piece of code on the blockchain more sustainable than storing it on a USB key managed by a gallery?
I don’t really care about that. I find Web3 mostly inspiring for its communities, the way generative processes are unfolded over multiple instances, the performative nature of drops, and the digital native side of it, finally a technology in which Net Art can flourish.
"Granting autonomy to artworks is very liberating."
Your recent works seem to be alive, offering precisely this rather fluid experience, not frozen by a file or a code in a frame. Your works are definitely not contents to be consumed or saved. They are rather used, they live in their own networks. Now, do you consider the autonomy of your artworks a necessity?
I think it comes from a way of looking. Because I observe the internet this way, I have made works from this vantage point of seeing. From this point, everything has autonomy, only many artworks aren't aware of this fact and are rigid. Granting autonomy to artworks is very liberating. It allows you to step back and let them go. Let the networked computer be itself.
Nowadays, it seems like platforms such as OpenSea or Artblocks are the most common ways of visualizing any NFT artworks, even though they’re not curated art spaces as such. What has been your best experience so far to exhibit online work such as NFT?
I enjoy the explosions of communication around a project. Web specifically was very interesting. The page web.leegte.org was the core of the project, and attracted thousands of visitors. These then would share pages on twitter or discord, and then you have the sales, and the works also pop up on Blur and OpenSea. This field of communication becomes the work and is very exciting.
Is being in touch easily with an online community of collectors on Discord, a way of mediating the work in a much more efficient way. How do you see it working aside from the function of a commercial gallery?
It had become something very new. For me it is the promise Web3 made. I am in direct communication with my collectors. It has created two worlds, my gallery with its collectors, and me with my collectors. Attempts at merging them have been made, but unsuccessfully. And for me that is good. It has created a sense of independence and a more horizontal relationship with the gallery.
Jan Robert Leegte (born 1973, The Netherlands) is one of the first Dutch artists to work on and for the Internet since the 1990s. In 2002, he shifted his main focus to implementing digital materials in the context of the physical gallery space, aiming to bridge the online art world with the gallery art world, making prints, sculpture, installations, drawings, and projections, connecting to historical movements like land art, minimalism, performance art, and conceptualism. His work has been exhibited internationally (Centre Pompidou, Ludwig Museum, Whitechapel Gallery, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, ZKM Karlsruhe). Leegte is represented by Upstream Gallery in Amsterdam.